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Caste system thrives in British Asian politics

The caste factor in politics in Indian sub-continent is thriving among South Asians in Britain, particularly among those with origins in Pak.

india Updated: Dec 29, 2003 12:28 IST

The ubiquitous caste factor in politics in the Indian sub-continent is thriving among South Asians in Britain, particularly among those with origins in Pakistan.

The caste factor, which Pakistanis call "biraderi", influences voting when British parties field candidates from the Pakistani community. Bitter "biraderi" rivalries are fought during elections.

The system ensures that family lineage rather than merit influences selection of candidates, and usually it is a "biraderi" elder who is selected.

The younger generation of British Pakistanis, who are less enamoured of the system, is beginning to call for a change.

Lord Nazir Ahmed, Britain's only Pakistani member of the House of Lords, is said to have fallen foul of "biraderi" politics.

"I know in Peterborough, Bradford, in Birmingham, when they put up candidates, from the Jat biraderi or Rajput biraderi, it does not matter what their politics is, when it comes to voting they will vote for their own.

"And this is what happened during my parliamentary selections. People said: 'Well he's a Jat, so we won't vote for him'", he told BBC Radio 4.

Shahid Malik, a member of the Labour Party's national executive, is opposed to the "biraderi" system, and accuses his party of not doing enough to break the hold of the system on supporters and candidates drawn from within the community.

He said many within the community were concerned that the clan system prevented women and younger potential political candidates from going for office.

The "biraderi" clans are the extended clan or tribal networks that influence Britain's nearly one million strong Pakistani community, and are an extension of systems of allegiance in Pakistan itself.

For some members, the clan gives them their strongest sense of identity and personal codes of behaviour.

Malik told the BBC that his party had unwittingly allowed the clans to infiltrate British politics by influencing who is chosen from within Pakistani communities to go forward for candidate selection.

"One of the things that has held back British Pakistanis and Kashmiris in this country has been the clan mentality, how people support and who people support. It hasn't been based on merit, and that has certainly had a major impact in terms of letting down the British Pakistani community as a whole.

"The Labour Party and other parties got used to dealing with those (clan) people and there seems to be an unwitting collusion there between the parties and first generation British Pakistanis," he said.

Many first generation Pakistani settlers in Britain found that the "biraderi" system provided essential support and identity as it provided links back to the villages of rural Punjab and Pakistani administered Kashmir.

For the second and third generation it has less relevance, but they are unable to break the grip it exerts on communities.

A former local council election candidate told BBC: "You could say you couldn't fight a political fight without using the 'biraderi' system."

Alliances between politicians and "biraderi" elders in Pakistan lead to leaders travelling to Britain during elections and instructing their clan members to vote for a particular candidate.

Without this support, the candidate cannot expect to be elected.

In some cases, "biraderi" rivalries will lead to a dummy candidate coming forward just to scupper the chances of another clan.

According to Zaffer Tanveer, a correspondent for the Daily Jang newspaper: "We miss out from having a voice because we are too busy looking inward and fighting among ourselves.

"(People are) saying 'my biraderi is better than your biraderi, and if I can't have it, I'm going to make sure that your not going to have it either'".

Reformers in the community accuse the main political parties of turning a blind eye to the system, which they believe is a corrupt force.

Malik said it was time political parties seeking to attract votes from within the Pakistani communities should change the way they recruit supporters.

First Published: Dec 24, 2003 21:35 IST